When’s the last time you walked without your phone in hand? Or ambled just for the pure pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other, taking in your surroundings with no particular destination in mind?
We’ve all (re)discovered the joy of a stroll this year, with getting outside a lifeline during pandemic lockdowns. But the art of just wandering for the fun of it isn’t new.
I first encountered the term flaneur in travel writer Paul Theroux’s writing. It’s an untranslatable French word, he said, that means travel at its essence. Flaneuring is a leisurely ramble whose only point is to soak up the beauty in the details we otherwise overlook, as I took it. The tradition is traced back to gentlemen of means with plenty of idle time, loafers that 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire saw as connoisseurs of the street.
And while the quintessential flanerie experience can be found in the dreamy streets of Paris, (think Owen Wilson in “Midnight in Paris”) we can indulge anywhere, according to Erika Owen, author of "The Art of Flaneuring."
Owen discovered the benefits of drifting when she moved to New York City and, short on spending money, would explore on foot. She didn’t realize her leisurely walks, sans destination, had a name until she read about other people’s experiences. Now they’re integral to her well-being, and she shares her passion for flanerie in her book.
The health benefits of flaneuring
So what’s great about an outing that’s not just a get-your-steps-in or get from point A to point B walk? For Owen, she found inspiration in unexpected places and moments, and a greater ease when finding herself in unfamiliar environments, during these strolls. The solitude also gave her mental space to work through issues, leaving her calmer than before beginning the practice, and the perspective gained from moving through the world helped her accept change more easily. Overall? She found herself happier in the way that comes with understanding yourself better.
Walks like this come with still more benefits, though. A study of “awe walks,” reported in psychological journal Emotion, found that older adults who walked in unfamiliar areas with instructions to notice details experienced a greater sense of well-being. Not only did they report greater joy than a control group who walked without instructions, the selfies they took as part of the study showed bigger smiles over the course of the study. This doesn’t surprise me; I still remember years later encountering a pistachio shop while flaneuring in Paris. An entire shop dedicated to pistachios! I grinned so widely at that, and at the many other moments of bliss in the city I found when I was unfettered by a plan or destination, that I feared people would think I was perhaps addled.
Strolls taken in the time of COVID-19 bring another layer to the benefits of flanerie as we all find ourselves starved for interaction and companionship. “People are so much friendlier,” Owen said. “I say hi to many more people, strangers than I usually would.” Even though we can’t see each other smiling behind masks, “you can almost feel a general openness when you’re walking around the neighborhood,” she said.
And though the origins of flanerie are steeped in urban environments, nature walks have their own rewards. Forest bathing, which can include simple walks in nature, can help people become more relaxed and happier.
Want to try flaneuring? Here's where to start
So where do you start? Does a daily walk with a dog count? Since I spend much of my outings looking at my phone or mulling over work or other issues while following the same route to the same destination as every other day, that’s a hard no.
Of course while we want to relax and let our guard down, safety always has to be a consideration on walks.
“I don't run into many problems in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, but I know that is not the case for everybody,” she said. “Deciding to go out and take a walk is a very different decision, depending on if you're white, if you're Black, if you're a woman, if you're a man.”
It’s a good idea to let someone know where you’re going, Owen said, or even walk with a friend. And as romantic as flanerie sounds, it takes some practical forethought. Wear comfortable shoes and bring some water, she said.
Try a walking meditation
It’s almost like you’re on auto-pilot on walks like this, Owen said. But, she acknowledged, “it's really hard to go outside and be like, ‘I'm going to walk without a destination.’” Some advice that’s worked for her is to start with sort of a walking meditation, she said, “just to take yourself out of your brain.” She accomplishes this by listening to the sound of her footsteps, and matching it to her breathing. “Do that for a couple of minutes and you’re automatically going to have fresher eyes,” she said.
Incorporating games can help mix up your route, she said. Think: turn left when you see someone in a blue jacket.
Get creative when cold weather hits
Winter is coming, and with that, fewer opportunities for outdoor flanerie. For those with access to, and who feel they can be safe in, public spaces like museums, those can offer an alternative for would-be flaneurs, Owen said. But for now, the sun is shining, the leaves are falling, and I think it’s time I leash up my dog and try a new kind of hometown walk, and go become a flaneur in my own neighborhood.